Rebellious dwarfs, crazed conquistadors, delusional tycoons, wood-carving ski jumpers: Werner Herzog scholars who attempt to find a pattern in the filmmaker's choices of subject matter are virtually guaranteed an interesting search, if an ultimately futile one. But they must all start in the same place: Herzog's very first film Herakles, which mashes up the spectacles of body building, auto racing, and destruction. It does all that in nine minutes to a soundtrack of saxophone jazz, and with frequent references to the titular hero of myth, whom you may know better by his Roman name of Hercules.
"Would he clean the Augean stables?" ask Herakles' subtitles over footage of one young German man showing off his well-shaped torso. "Would he dispose of the Lernaean Hydra?" they ask of another as he strikes a pose.
Between clips of these bodybuilders performing their labors and questions about whether they could perform those of Hercules, we see militaristic marches, falling bombs, heaps of rubble, and a 1955 racecar crash at Le Mans that killed 83 people. All this juxtaposition tempts us to ask what message the nineteen-year-old Herzog wanted to deliver, but, as in all his subsequent work, he surely wanted less to make an articulable point than to explore the possibilities of cinema itself.
More recently, in Paul Cronin's interview book Herzog on Herzog, the filmmaker looks back on "my first blunder, Herakles" and finds it "rather stupid and pointless, though at the time it was an important test for me. It taught me about editing together very diverse material that would not normally sit comfortably as a whole," and in a sense prepared him for an entire cinematic career of very diverse material that would not normally sit comfortably as a whole. "For me it was fascinating to edit material together that had such separate and individual lives. The film was some kind of an apprenticeship for me. I just felt it would be better to make a film than go to film school” — of the non-rogue variety, anyway.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.